Monday, July 21, 2014

Discovering a Passion for Science

Local high school students and others participating in Project SEED experience science firsthand in research labs of the IU psychological and brains sciences, chemistry, and astronomy departments

On July 18 Project SEED participants presented their summer research in a poster session in the lobby of the MSBII building on the IUB campus.
Local high-schoolers seeking to explore what life as a scientist is all about need to look no further than Project SEED. The program began in Indianapolis in 1968 and was brought to Bloomington just last year when the program coordinator  Elmer Sanders asked IU psychological and brain sciences professor Sharlene Newman if a local high school student could work in her lab during the summer. One student became five students, which became nine students this year. They joined labs in chemistry and astronomy, in addition to those in psychological and brain sciences.

Project SEED is open to everyone, but has a particular interest in recruiting economically disadvantaged students, who have an interest in science and a desire to experience science in a research lab firsthand. It offers the financial support the students might need and at the same time it gives them a peek into a promising career. They work in the lab and have weekly seminars on topics related to scientific research: writing abstracts, constructing posters, and guidance on such topics as how to choose and apply to colleges.

“We want to expose these kids to science, let them know what research is about and hopefully encourage them to pursue scientific careers,” Newman says.  She admits she herself has a special interest in getting the word out about psychological science. “So many people are not aware of what psychology is. They do not realize how broad it is, that it has a strong computational side and that it includes neuroscience as well as social and clinical psychology.”

In Newman’s lab incoming IU freshman Olivia Lancaster is learning how to use the EEG machine and interpret its data. Specifically, she is learning how to analyze the various brain waves produced as the brain processes language. Lancaster has always been interested in the brain but was surprised how much she also really liked the data analysis involved—and how her training here has allowed her to understand so much.

“You’re getting so much hands-on attention from your mentor and they are very patient and understanding. They don’t expect you to understand it all immediately. It’s not as if you’re in a large lecture hall where you’re afraid to raise your hand,” says Lancaster, former Bloomington South student who will be attending IU in the fall where she plans to major in psychology.

Of all the research labs he toured at the beginning, a study on Fingerprint Identification in the lab of professor and associate PBS chair Tom Busey was North senior Mac Vogelsang’s first choice. The lab wanted him, too, thanks to his sophisticated knowledge of computer programs used in it. “We’re trying to figure out if people look at fingerprints the way they look at faces, seeing them as a whole, rather than in parts,” he explains.

One of the interesting realizations he had here was “how useful statistics are. I had taken a class in it just last year and I was surprised how relevant it was,” he says. ”It can be applied in any field, not just science or math, because its methods are used for analyzing all kinds of data.”

Morgan Newman, a North senior who participated in the program last summer, was able to pick up where she left off last summer in the research lab of Bill Hetrick, professor and PBS chair, who studies schizophrenia. This summer she is helping to complete a project begun last year in the lab, developing the equipment needed to perform a technique known as eye-blink conditioning inside a brain scanner. The equipment, made right here in the department’s own workshop, will ultimately enable scientists to perform experiments that will help them gain new insights into parts of the brain affected by schizophrenia.

Also back for his second year is incoming IU freshman Dedric Dennist from Milwaukee at work in professor Linda Smith’s Cognitive Development Lab and now designing a study of his own. Recent North graduate Greg Lopes was thrilled to have a chance to experience the day-to-day work in the social psychology lab of researcher Mary Murphy, “running subjects” in a study that seeks to understand how we can improve everyday interracial interactions.  Lopes enters Stanford University this fall as a student in chemical engineering, but has a strong interest in social psychology, which the program made it possible for him to explore.

Each student in Project SEED works closely with a member of their lab. Busey, for example, typically spent a couple of hours a day with Mac Vogelsang, discussing various questions that arose in their research on fingerprint perception, as well as the difficulties of data analysis. Among those questions, they debated how best to share the research questions with a study’s participants. “We talked about trade-offs that come with different experiments and had an interesting discussion,” Busey notes. “It’s been instructive for both of us.”  In fact the two plan to continue working together in the fall.

Newman describes how gratifying it is to see the students’ experience unfold during the summer. “They’re all a little scared when they start. But by the third week things begin to click, the research papers they read start to make sense, and by the time they get to present their posters, they’re usually really excited about their research.”

For IU psychological and brain sciences chair, Bill Hetrick, the presence of these students is refreshing. “I thoroughly enjoy having young scientists in the lab. Their newfound excitement and enthusiasm for scientific inquiry is infectious and reacts synergistically with the deep passion I have for research.”

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